While the mayoral race is absorbing New Yorkers’ attention, dozens of equally important races are flying under the radar: the contests for New York’s 51 city council districts. The city’s housing crisis makes these races especially urgent. Like many cities, New York has a tradition of “member deference” that gives council members unofficial veto power over all development in their district.
Council members rarely face competitive elections. As Daniel J. Hopkins notes in a Manhattan Institute policy brief on local election turnout, New York is overwhelmingly Democratic and conducts elections in two phases: a partisan primary, and a general contest between one candidate from each party. The winner of a Democratic primary in most races is certain to win the general election.
New York’s undemocratic politics help explain why anti-development policies persist in a city where considerable majorities support more housing construction. As Hopkins notes, New York’s primary process disempowers non-Democrats unwilling to register with a party they dislike. Furthermore, primaries are often held on obscure dates and feature races between low-profile neighborhood politicians. Hence, turnout often falls below 10 percent in New York primaries.
Low-turnout elections, in turn, encourage politicians to take narrow views of politics, cobbling together a plurality by catering to organized interest groups that can get their members to the polls. These concessions often take the form of anti-growth politics, as candidates pander to anti-development groups with self-serving motivations such as preserving their property views and inflated house values, or groups such as organized labor that want to keep out non-union jobs.
Consider councilman Carlos Menchaca, who represents a district in Brooklyn that would have been home to the canceled Industry City development. The project would have created tens of thousands of jobs, but thanks to member deference, Menchaca could decide its fate. He insisted on so many onerous conditions—including the elimination of a planned hotel that might have posed competition to the city’s powerful hotel workers’ union, which has spent years fighting for a de facto ban on new hotels—that the developers decided the project could not be profitable and gave up. It bears noting that Menchaca’s district has about 157,000 residents, but only 8,615 votes were cast in his last remotely competitive election: the 2017 Democratic primary, which he won as an incumbent with 48.5 percent of the vote.
Hopkins proposes reasonable reforms for boosting turnout, such as shifting municipal elections by a year to coincide with more prominent national elections. But it is worth considering a more radical (though not unprecedented) scheme: abolishing city council districts altogether and electing city councils by proportional representation.
In New York, such a scheme might work as follows. Organizations that gather enough signatures from city residents (an appropriate threshold may be in the tens of thousands) could register as New York City–specific political parties, and state affiliates of the two major parties and larger third parties could get automatic registration as well. Regional political parties, such as the Minnesota Farmer–Labor party that dominated Minnesota politics in the 1930s, are not unprecedented in the United States, and still have substantial power in other nations such as Canada, where federal and provincial political parties are separate and autonomous organizations. New York City–specific political parties might therefore include not just Democrats, Republicans, and smaller parties such as Libertarians and Greens, but could also allow new organizations or ideologies that don’t fit neatly into the extant party system to get a voice in city politics.
Before the election, party leaders would write a platform and choose a ranked slate of candidates for city council. In general elections, voters would choose a political party rather than a specific candidate. Then, each party would send some number of their top-ranked candidates to the council in proportion to the share of the vote that they received—for instance, if the council had 60 members, then a party that received 20 percent of the vote would win seats for its top twelve candidates.
Such a plan would have many advantages over district elections. First, proportional representation would allow voters more significant choices. Currently, most city voters have to register as Democrats to vote in a meaningful election, and in primaries, candidates are often distinguished more by interest groups than by ideology. Even districts with some partisan competition offer a choice only between a Democrat and a Republican, chosen in primaries that do not hinge on ideological differences. Under proportional representation, voters could choose between several parties and have better odds of finding one that represents their own political views. Their choice would have a real chance of affecting the balance of power.
Second, voters could better comprehend the stakes of a competition between parties with clear platforms and citywide name recognition than those of a competition between obscure neighborhood politicians running low-budget campaigns. A substantial body of political science literature finds that proportional representation systems produce higher voter turnout than district elections.
Severing the link between city council members and individual districts would also eliminate member deference and remove members’ incentives to pander to narrow neighborhood interests. Instead, politicians and their parties would have to appeal to broader citywide constituencies. Local interests could still form a political party and nominate their own candidates and might even be able to win a seat if they genuinely have broad support in their neighborhood. But without member deference, they would not have the outsize influence that city councilmen often have today. With wider competition, finally, local Democratic parties would face the threat of losing control of city councils to a coalition of other parties and would have to work harder to solve voters’ problems in order to retain support.
One final concern: racial representation. The scheme of “majority-minority” districts set up by the Voting Rights Act (VRA) presupposes single-member districts, and lawsuits under the VRA have invalidated several “at-large” voting schemes in which all members of a legislative body are chosen by all voters in the city. But these schemes, frequently adopted after Jim Crow by white-majority southern cities, were typically designed to give all seats to the city’s majority. Proportional representation, however, guarantees representation of minority political interests, and ethnic groups with coherent political demands could start parties and nominate slates of their own. A 1978 law review article by political scientist Joseph Zimmerman concludes that at least one variant of proportional representation would be acceptable under the VRA.
Zimmerman also notes that proportional representation has advantages over district-based elections for promoting ethnic diversity. It would not require racial minorities to live in the same neighborhoods to retain political strength, a feature of district elections that perversely encourages racial-minority politicians to preserve racial segregation. And it would empower ethnic groups besides those officially regarded as racial minorities and remove conflicts between them provoked by the VRA’s racial gerrymandering. For instance, the 1977 Supreme Court case United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburgh, Inc. v. Carey concerned a VRA–mandated redrawing of New York state legislative districts that split a district in Brooklyn with a Hasidic Jewish majority in order to fortify black political power. (Irish-, Italian-, and Polish-American interest groups also objected to the redistricting on similar grounds.) The Supreme Court rejected a complaint that the redistricting harmed Hasidic political power on the grounds that Jews were merely an ethnic group, not a race, and ethnic groups were not protected under the VRA. Under proportional representation, though, Hasidic Jews could start a political party devoted to their own interests and have a chance to win seats without worrying about the vagaries of redistricting plans.
To abandon such a universal feature of American politics as single-member districts may seem radical, but city politics are the perfect laboratory for such changes—especially in cities like New York that need radical changes. Proportional representation would reintroduce a healthy form of partisan competition, one that makes elections meaningful and gives ruling parties a greater incentive for good governance while also getting rid of the parochialism that underlies many citywide problems.
In the tightly interconnected economies of modern cities, important issues are seldom local matters. It’s time to redesign our cities’ electoral systems accordingly.
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